The Gift of Pain

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

If you’re an only child, you never had to share. Upside? You get all the time, all the attention and all the praise. Downside? You get all the responsibility and all the blame. Being raised that way made me fiercely independent and emotionally self-sufficient.

It also made me determined to never appear weak. Because I was raised to believe weak Black boys become weak Black men who bring shame and embarrassment to their families. I did not want to be that person, not with stakes so high and so many eyes on me.

So if you’re the oldest Black boy in your generation and the only child in your household, how do you deal? You decide to do everything yourself.

“Other people might fail me,” you think “but I will never fail myself.”

I become very successful living that way. Whatever I need, I think, I can do on my own.

Then I fell.

Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

— —

It’s Friday. It’s gray and wet, a light drizzle telling me it’s gonna rain hard later.

I’m picking up a package from my friend’s front porch. I grab it, turn around, walk back toward my car, the whole time thinking about my plans for the weekend. My wife is out of town and Daddy has to take care of the kid.

I blink.

And then I’m on the ground at the bottom of the steps, gasping for breath. Confused and afraid, because I don’t know how I ended up on this cold, wet pavement. The box burst open, contents scattered all around me. And pain like I’ve never felt running from my knee to the top of my thigh.

A neighbor appears, asks if I’m okay, says he saw my leg fold underneath me, says he thinks it’s probably hyper extended. Do you need an ambulance, he asks. I say no. I need to be at the bus stop when my kid arrives in a couple of hours.

Once my friend helps me get to my car, I practice driving, gingerly folding my leg behind the steering wheel and pressing my foot on the gas. Between pills, ice and will power, I pick my kid up from the bus stop and I somehow get her to soccer match and back. When we get back home, I maneuver myself down on the floor long enough to lay out some newspaper so we can eat crab legs and corn on the cob.

We had a plan for a fun weekend and I won’t let some freak fall take that away.

Right leg on swole

In that first week, my leg was swollen, stiff and painful. I spent days and days on the couch, resting and immobile. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m much improved. My mobility is back, and the pain and swelling are almost all gone.

But it took some work to get here and I learned a lot along the way.

Here’s what I can share:

I’m Not In Control

After I fell, my first impulse was not self-care. It was self judgement.

“What the hell were you thinking about!?” I wanted to ask.

“You do yoga — where was your focus!?”

“How could you be so careless!? You have a kid that needs you — you can’t afford to be hurt!”

That’s the Devil seducing my ego. “If you plan well enough,” it whispers “concentrate hard enough, live carefully enough, you can control every circumstance, every occurrence, every outcome.”

I want that lie, because the truth is terrifying: Life is uncontrollable and chaos is everywhere. I have been on that porch many times, even in the dark and sometimes after nights of heavy drinking. And I never hyper extended my leg.

Why now? Why was this time different?

What if the answer is…no reason?

What if there was no way to plan against it, focus around it, or observe it away.

What if, sometimes…stuff just happens.

What do you do then?

Nobody Wins Alone

As soon as I fell, my neighbor was there. He made sure I was okay, then rang the doorbell and got my friend.

Thank God, ’cause I could not move.

My friend brought me into her house, talked me through the pain, helped settle my nerves.

Thank God, ’cause I could not think.

A few days later, I wonder what happens if I’m all alone. With no caring community to help me.

I imagine trying to calm myself and make sense of it all. Alone.

Pull myself up on my throbbing, swollen leg. Then shuffle over to car, by myself. With no one to hold me up. No shelter to recover. No one around to offer sympathy and support.

I cannot imagine it. There is literally no way I get home safely without those people. When life threw me for a loop, my rugged individualism wasn’t worth a dime.

Things Change

I’ve been injured before, but not like this.

40 years ago, Young Mike ran and bashed his head against a coffee table. I was rushed off to the emergency room, where they cleaned up the blood, stitched me up and sent me back home. It was a huge deal, but eventually the scar faded and right today I couldn’t tell you where it was if you put a gun to my head.

20 years ago, Grown Mike got hit by a bus riding my bike. I crashed onto the sidewalk, fracturing my elbow. After the cast was gone, my elbow clicked for a while and might ache a little if it got too cold. But now I can’t even remember which arm it was.

Two weeks ago, I fell off my friend’s front porch . Laying on my couch, ice pack resting on my leg until it went numb, foot elevated by two pillows, this hurt felt…worse. Legs hold you up, legs get you around, legs are your foundation. And the whole time I lay on the couch, I kept wondering:

“Will I ever walk the same again? Will my knee ever bend properly? Would I really be able to chase my kid around again?”

Legitimate thoughts — in the moment. But my injury taught me moments are just paragraphs and if I’m alive, I have the power to change the story whenever I want.

And that’s because….

Some Things I Can Control

My Wife and my Dad are jocks. When they saw my leg, they both said the same thing:

“Don’t move it. Stay on the couch. Elevate it. Take drugs and ice it up (twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off)”

Sounded reasonable. But, like…I had shit to do. You remember — Bus stop. Soccer. Crabs. Yada Yada Yada. I couldn’t get any of it done on the couch. So for the first 24 hours, I listened to my ego.

Eventually truth spoke louder. Between the pain and the swelling, my leg was pretty useless. Small things like getting out of bed and getting dressed became huge ordeals. So I stayed on the couch, even though my daughter needed me and I felt like I was failing. Again.

Eventually….finally…my leg got better. Mobility came back. The swelling receded. But running, kicking, jumping — fun stuff me and my kid did before? To do that, I needed more.

Sometime You Have To Stretch

My Dad introduced me to yoga over ten years ago and it remains one of the best gifts. I still use it to release stress, build strength, increase my flexibility and — more importantly — learn about myself. With guidance from my wonderful teachers, I push myself and watch to what comes up.

Listening to my body

I can’t prove it, but without this constant work, I truly believe the injury would be much worse. So when I was looking for a way back to full strength, I knew they path would take me back to my mat.

Remember your lessons, I think. And just flow.

The first time I ask my knee to support my weight, there’s pain. Then fear. But I remember my teacher Shanna telling me ‘emotions can be a friend. Just figure out what they came to teach you.’

I already know. Fear comes when I don’t trust. And in that moment, I don’t trust my leg to hold me up. And if my leg can’t hold me up, I can’t hold anybody else up. I fail.

I remembered my Dad telling me “Yoga is not about positions. It’s about breathing.” I close my eyes. Breathe deeper. Relax. I bend a little more. Breathe. Relax. Bend a little more. Go a little deeper. Try a little harder…

And then my leg buckles. I lose my balance. I fall.

I’m pissed. I could do this pose in my sleep, but now I’m like a beginner taking my first class. With a bum leg I can’t count on.

But I remember my teacher Victoria. She always says “If a pose pushes you to your limit and you fall? No big deal. You can get back up and start all over again. That’s yoga, too.”

Pushing through to healing

And that’s what I did. Over and over again. Stretching my leg a little further, breathing a little deeper, reaching a little higher, and when I fell, cursing a lot, gritting my teeth and starting all over again.

Over time, my leg gets stronger and we find a new rhythm, the leg giving more support and me giving more trust. But steady improvement can’t hide the truth — our relationship might never be the same. There may always be pain when I bend my knee and when I squat I may always need a back up plan. Or a helping hand.

But with lost power comes new empathy. When I see people with chronic pain or restricted movement, I remember planning my whole day downstairs because it hurt too much to climb the sixteen little steps in my house more than once a day.

I remember asking my daughter to fill my ziplock bag with ice, because I need something cold to put on my leg and I don’t want to limp over to the freezer myself.

I remember hanging out with my boy and while I’m telling him how I fell, seeing his genuine concern. Hoping it never turns to pity.

“My power is made perfect in weakness,” God told Paul in 2 Corinthians.

“Since that fall,” God told me when my leg was killing me the other day “your heart is a little softer and your eyes are a little clearer. You may carry this pain forever, but let it always remind you of the ones you needed when you were down. And never again believe you can be God all alone.”

To which I reply:

“Thank you.”

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Mike Sales

Mike Sales

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Mike is a writer and public speaker who explores race and spirituality. His work has been in Charlotte magazine, The Salt Collective Elon University.